The harsh winter air numbed my face, but I kept on running. A slight tremor was running up and down my spine, but whether it was because of the cold or the adrenaline I could not tell. Rounding the corner, I was greeted by flashing lights and the piercing scream of sirens. The paramedics had arrived first.
Earlier that morning, Mel (name changed to preserve anonymity) was going about her usual business. She had gotten up early, taken a shower, brushed her hair, and prepared breakfast for her nine-year-old son and mother. She glanced at the clock: 8 AM on New Year’s Eve. Her family would be awake soon. It was at that time that she first felt a dull ache in her lower abdomen. She had an ominous feeling then, like a receding wave just before the tsunami struck and all hell broke loose, but the pain subsided and she thought little of it.
She had found out that she was two months pregnant a day before. This was welcome news, and she was planning to call her husband in China at midnight to tell him about it. It would be a New Year’s surprise, she thought. They were about to have a new child, their son a new sibling, and their family would finally be complete.
But the pain grew worse in the evening, and then there was blood, and she began to feel numb and breathless and cold. Her mother and son panicked.
“What should we do?”
“Call…call an ambulance…”
Her son bolted for the phone. Mel’s husband would have to wait.
“And…” she said to her mother. “…hand me my cell phone.”
It was 9 PM, three hours before the New Year, when I received the call.
“Is…is your mom…at home?” said the voice.
“No,” I said, and before I could ask who it was, the caller hang up.
I returned to my computer. It had been an eventful day. My eleven-year-old brother’s friend had come over, wolfed down his lunch, jumped around like a madman, and promptly puked on the floor right next to the sink. I had just cleaned up his mess and sent him home when I received the call.
I sat at my desk and thought about the year ahead. Will it be a good year? I mused. Then I laughed at myself. Good? What is good? Four years at university had instilled in me an aversion to vagueness. Instead, I decided to imagine what medical school would be like, and what I would do if I didn’t get in. I thought about four more years of school and an additional number of years doing residency, and I thought about whether I would enjoy being in the hospital for the most part of my young adult life. I thought about where I would go, and where (or if) I would settle down.
At this, the parakeet I’d bought for my mom as a Christmas present issued a shrill cry. I looked at her and examined her cage, trying to figure out what it was that caused her to assert her presence, while she looked at me reproachfully for not understanding whatever it was that she wanted me to understand. She shook her head in annoyance. I think she’d given up on me.
I remembered showing my mom how to train the bird. I would hold a piece of millet in my hand, extend my other arm, and speak a command. The parakeet would fly onto my empty hand, and I would convey my approval by clicking my tongue and feeding her some millet.
“She’s so cute,” my mom said. “If anything should happen to her, we’d all be devastated.”
Outwardly, I agreed. Secretly, I doubted that the bird had any real human attachment. Unlike mammals, bird brains are ancient and basic. Sure, it could learn tricks, but the underlying motivation is obviously treats, not sentiment. But the tendency to anthropomorphize non-human objects is universal, and from an evolutionary point of view probably useful, as the very same neural circuitry underlies parental instincts.
Then again, are humans all that different from birds? Certainly, we are more complex, we have emotions, we build, create, and destroy. We connect and relate with each other in subtle and powerful ways. But like all elementary beings, we share the same biological components and face the same physical constraints. My gut tells me that there is something special about humans, but my brain wasn’t convinced. Maybe on some higher level we, too, seem like birds. Either way, I didn’t think I would cry if something happened to the parakeet.
Another shrill sound brought me back to the present. It was the telephone again. Was it my imagination, or was there a sense of urgency to this particular call? I picked it up.
“Can…you…come…?” the voice on the phone said.
“Who is this?” I asked.
“I’ll be right there.”
When I rounded the corner to Mel’s house, the paramedics were already making their way upstairs to her bedroom. Mel was lying on her bed. Sweat poured from her face as she gasped for air like a fish out of water. Her son, nine-year-old Lawrence, was in tears. I clasped his shoulder as I entered the room. I saw a familiar fear in his face: the fear of a child who thought his mom was dying.
“Everyone stand back,” said one of the taller paramedics. “Who are you?” he asked me.
“Her interpreter,” I said.
“Alright, you stay. Tell her to control her breathing. If she doesn’t get that breathing rate to come down, she’ll be in big trouble.”
For the next thirty minutes, we struggled with Mel to find out what her problem was. I flipped between Mandarin and English, trying to be as helpful as I helplessly could. When they decided that she had stabilized enough to be transported, the paramedics brought in a stretcher for the ambulance.
“You need to come with us,” said the tall paramedic to me. I admit with some guilt that I felt excited about this. This was my first time in an ambulance, and thankfully it wasn’t as a patient.
During the ride, the tall paramedic quizzed her on her symptoms. When did she last eat? How profuse was her bleeding? How much pain was she in, on a scale of zero to ten? I knew the results of this interview would reach the hands of a triage nurse, who would determine the level of urgency her problem was. The more urgent the problem, the higher on the priority list Mel would be placed. I briefly considered colouring my translation a bit to make her condition sound worse, but eventually decided against it. She looked bad enough as it was.
Ten minutes later, we arrived at the Urgent Care unit of Markham-Stouffville Hospital. Mel was wheeled into the triage area. Oddly, besides the patient, nothing about the place seemed particularly urgent. It was New Year’s Eve, so few nurses and paramedics were on staff, and the ones that were there were in a lighthearted, almost festive, mood. I felt some indignation for their apparent frivolousness, but realized that they’d probably seen so many emergency cases that they’d just gotten used to it.
A nurse came over to check on Mel. “We’re just waiting for the doctor to arrive,” she said, and moved on to the only other patient in the room. That other patient was an elderly woman hooked up to a dozen tubes. She could barely speak, and her heart monitor occasionally gave sad, isolated beeps.
It would have been disrespectful if I’d said it, but I thought she was what the medical community called a “gomer”, an elderly patient with so many problems that no doctor was able to treat her completely. These patients could go in and out of emergency rooms for years, each time tumbling through the healthcare system in a series of examinations, medications and, most importantly, observations.
It was 10 PM when a bed opened up for Mel. “Wait on that stool. We’ll call you when we need you,” a nurse said to me. They wheeled her into a room and shut the curtains, sealing Mel in and the rest of the world out.
There was a digital display in the Urgent Care Area, its lights prominently displaying the time in red. Red is an interesting colour. Although it was probably there for prominence, red can mean many things. It can mean life, its being the colour of blood. It can mean sex, which sometimes precedes life. It can also mean a sunset at the end of a day, where the longer wavelengths of red pierce through the atmosphere while shorter ones are scattered by dust and debris.
At 11.45 PM, a nurse emerged from the curtains. I sneaked a peak at the heart monitor behind her and saw a blood pressure reading of 53 over 30.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“We think it’s a cornual pregnancy,” she said. “The pregnancy is in the wrong place. We’ll need surgery immediately.”
The cornus is part of the Fallopian tube. In a normal pregnancy, the egg is fertilized in the tube, but migrates to the uterus before attaching itself and developing any further. In a cornual pregnancy, the fetus is prematurely stuck in the Fallopian. By 8 weeks, which was Mel’s window, the fetus would have grown to about 1.2cm in an area that was usually less than 1cm wide. Four hours ago, Mel’s Fallopian tube had ruptured, causing its contents to spill into the surrounding peritoneal cavity. Her abdomen had filled up like a water balloon with blood and infection. Over the next two hours, Mel would lose two litres of blood out of the roughly five litres that her small frame held.
The nurse brought me into the room, where the gynecologist asked me to translate the surgical procedure and risks to Mel.
“We will make three incisions around the abdominal area, two on one side and one on another. We will insert a small camera to help us see inside. We’ll also need to insert a syringe to remove the blood.”
I translated. Mel nodded weakly.
“As with any procedure, there will be risks.”
“There may be infections.”
“There may be bleeding. It may affect other organs.”
I’ve heard of a healthcare critic in the States once comment about how patients are easily taken advantage of in their state of weakness. Of course, in America, where health services besides those under Medicare and Medicaid are covered by private insurance, the conditions are much more auspicious for doctors with questionable morals. But I could now see his point. Mel was in no condition to argue or negotiate. Thankfully, there was no need to.
“Do you have any questions?” asked the gynecologist.
At this, Mel beckoned me closer. “Will…it…hurt…?”
I was struck by her childlikeness when she asked it. “Will it hurt?” That’s what my brother asked before he had his first injection in kindergarten. At that I wanted to say of course not, I will make sure of it! But I had to stick to my role as interpreter.
“You will be completely under,” the gynecologist said, smiling.
The consent forms were signed, blood transfusion was set up, and we waited outside the OR for the anesthesiologist. I looked at my watch: 11.59 PM. In the distance I could hear the nursing staff chant. “Ten, nine, eight…”
I thought back to last year, when I spent New Year’s Eve at a sleepover downtown with my friends. And the year before that…I couldn’t remember any more.
“Will it hurt?” Such a simple question.
I will probably cry if something happened to the bird.
“Happy New Year, Mel,” I said.
Another year. Another year alive. It is going to be a good year.